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Woman's Building Lost to a Hitch in 'Herstory' : Arts: The downtown structure opened up a new world for feminist artists; with its closing, the leaders are left to ponder an uncertain future.

January 07, 1992|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They came from all parts of the country to Los Angeles. They were art school students from the Midwest, writers from the East, housewives from Orange County, second-time-around college students from the Inland Empire, women making the trek to a new feminist mecca.

The time: mid-'70s. The place: the Feminist Studio Workshop, later to become the Woman's Building. The quest: to find themselves, to make art, to change the culture.

It was a heady time, and their destination was a place like no other. Both an accredited arts school and a gathering and exhibition space, the Woman's Building was one of the centers of the feminist art movement. It also played a key role in the development of performance art as a medium.

In Los Angeles, moreover, it was the first arts organization to locate downtown, spearheading the quasi-bohemia that thrived there amid the lofts and warehouses during the late '70s and the '80s, and that now has all but disappeared.

With the closing last summer of the Woman's Building home on North Spring Street, an era has come to a close. The board will continue to meet, looking at options for future incarnations.

The archives have been housed at the Smithsonian Institution and elsewhere. The affiliated Women's Graphics Center has moved to Pasadena's Armory Center for the Arts, still staffed and used by Woman's Building members. The Vesta Awards also continue: The 10th annual event in the fall featured art critic Lucy Lippard as keynote speaker, and its proceeds went toward an oral history of the organization.

But the Woman's Building has passed into "herstory." And that passing illuminates not only the obstacles to making art in Los Angeles, but also the internal and external threats facing feminism.

Partly because of the increased attention to the politics of race, both class and gender often take a back seat nowadays. That isn't to say that feminist rallying points don't exist; there's the feminization of poverty, for starters, as well as the debate over abortion rights.

"It's sad to see that public space close," says Village Voice critic and art historian Arlene Raven, one of the founders of the Woman's Building. "But I'm proud of it having been open for 18 years--the longest-operating feminist institution. It's a terrible time for women's endeavors."

It's also a difficult time for the women, whose artistic and professional lives have been shaped by this organization. Now scattered across the country, with established artistic careers and holding a variety of influential positions in the arts, they have lost a vital common ground.

Upon hearing of the closing, artist and Woman's Building co-founder Judy Chicago sent a postcard to a current board member, summing up the fate of an L.A. cultural landmark.

"I'm upset about the Woman's Building," Chicago wrote. "Why can't we sustain our institutions? That's what I'd like to know!"

The Woman's Building, named in homage to the all-but-forgotten structure of the same name and similar intent at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, was the brainchild of three founders: Chicago, Raven and Sheila deBretteville, all of whom were teaching at CalArts during the '70s.

Frustrated by the problems of trying to offer feminist education in what they saw as a male-dominated institution, the three left CalArts and set out to found a school of their own in 1973.

That school was the Feminist Studio Workshop, which originally met in DeBretteville's living room but would soon find a home in a large building near MacArthur Park. Fueled by the momentum of the women's movement, it lured other fledgling organizations to the same building as tenants: galleries, a travel agency, the Sisterhood bookstore, the National Organization for Women and others.

In 1975, the building was sold, and the workshop transferred to the Spring Street location, although most of the other associated organizations did not go along.

Save a few groups that rented space in the new, three-story downtown location, the Woman's Building had by 1976 become a single entity. Within that structure, there were various educational, social and cultural programs, including the Feminist Studio Workshop.

"The move downtown really changed the organization," says performance and video artist Cheri Gaulke, the individual with the longest-running association with the Woman's Building and a current board member. "Businesses fell out because there was no foot traffic. There was no downtown art at the time. There was just the core community of the Feminist Studio Workshop--women from all over the country wanting to explore what it meant to be feminists and artists and how that could converge in a new kind of art form."

Things went relatively well during the latter half of the '70s, with support from government grants and the groundswell of popular feminism on the political horizon. There was room to breathe, room to make mistakes.

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